Labour and its rivals in Bristol: some historical perspective

This recent round of council elections provided plenty of worrying headlines for the Labour Party, including losing my home city of Bristol to No Overall Control. They won the region’s metro mayor race against the Tories and saw their incumbent city mayor re-elected, but it was clear something unusual was happening from the fact that Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, found himself in a second preferences run-off against the Green Party candidate.

When the council election results were announced the following day, the rest of this #GreenSurge was seen. They more than doubled their tally, by taking a third of the Labour seats and a couple from the Lib Dems. The Green Party and the Labour Party each ended up with 24 seats out of 70. And the Greens missed out on being the largest party by the slimmest of margins: just 16 votes in the Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston ward, where they lost a seat to the Conservatives.

It is worth noting that the Green Party had been steadily growing in the city. They won their first council seat in 2006, but it was over the years of the Cameron-Clegg Tory-LibDem coalition government that they grew from a single seat to overtake the LibDems locally, ending up with 16 seats in the 2015 elections. By contrast, the LibDems fell from a majority on the council in 2010 to be in fourth place with just 10 by the time left government.

Things have changed a lot in Bristol’s local politics since then. In 2016, Labour ousted an independent as the directly-elected Mayor and, with new ward boundaries in place, took a couple of seats off the Greens amongst others on their way to winning a majority on the council. Alongside new boundaries, there was a move to elect the whole council once every four years. After the pandemic delay, these elections brought an abrupt end to what had appeared to be a reversion to the norm: Bristol as a Labour-run city.

We might date Bristol’s time as a Labour City starting in 1945. That was when it began a long period of dominance in Westminster and local elections in the city. Of course, that didn’t come out of nowhere. Labour had been a presence and then a force for some time before that.

In Samson Bryher’s 1929 Account of the Labour and Socialist Movement of Bristol, he gives an impression of it as more of a social movement in the early days of the late nineteenth century as more of a social movement, complete songbooks and summer picnics alongside public lectures from the likes of William Morris and ‘quiet talks by the way on intricacies of economics and sociology’. From the first Labour councillors being elected from 1887, however, something changed. In the view of historian Duncan Tanner, Bristol and Leicester became the two ‘most successful Labour organisations’ in the country before the First World War, which he attributed to the strength of the 600-strong Independent Labour Party group that especially in the poorer east of the city.

When Labour’s local parliamentary breakthrough came in 1923, Labour won the Bristol East and North seats, also taking Bristol South in 1929. They pushed further ahead in 1945, taking Bristol North from the (National) Liberals and Bristol Central from the Conservatives, leaving them with just the wealthy Bristol West, which they held until 1997.

There were no Liberal or Lib Dem MPs in Bristol between 1945 and 2005, when they took Bristol West for the next two elections. 2010 saw the Conservatives reverse their 1997 wipeout taking the neighbouring Bristol North West and the two seats they still hold: Kingswood to the east and the new constituency of Filton & Bradley Stoke to the north created in 2010. Much of both of these constituencies are in South Gloucestershire and quite distinct from the historically Labour city of Bristol. It certainly felt so when I passed fields on my way to Filton High School each morning, though those fields are all housing estates now.

Within the city of Bristol, therefore, Labour has been the dominant party in parliamentary elections since 1945. This was a position they achieved essentially by replacing the Liberals as the local alternative to the Conservatives. In terms of MPs, the Liberal-Conservative fight was one the Liberals had long been winning until the rise of Labour, with most (or for three decades all) of the city’s MPs for 61 years until 1923. In municipal elections, however, the situation was quite different.

It was in fact the Tories and then Conservatives who had control of the city council from 1812 until 1904, suggesting there was little difference between the merchant oligarchy before the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act and the reformed chamber thereafter. An outright Liberal majority in 1904 was denied by Labour’s five councillors, while Conservative dominance of the Aldermanic bench continued. Although 1906 saw the Liberals increase their representation to hold three of the city’s four seats in its landslide general election victory, the same year also saw the party lose to the Conservatives its position as the largest party on the council for another century.

By 1925 Labour had increased its number of councilors from five to 18 out of the 69 total, and again to 32 in 1930. These successes and the parallel Liberal struggles prompted the formation of an ‘anti-socialist’ alliance, with Labour facing the Citizen Party in Bristol’s local elections between 1926 and 1973. This arrangement held off a Labour majority for a decade and clear control of the council until 1945.

Courtesy of Bristol Rerence Library: Citizen Party, ‘Bristol Election Special’, October 1947 (Ref: B18598)

The Citizen Party has been described as ‘a distinctly local reaction to the rise of the Labour Party’. That does not mean, however, that it was entirely separate from national politics. From 1945 the aim was to position itself as a localist rejection of the Attlee government’s agenda of nationalisation. As the cartoons in the their 1947 election material show, the charge against the Bristol’s local Labour administration was that it was simply doing the bidding of central government.

Courtesy of Bristol Rerence Library: Citizen Party, ‘Bristol Election Special’, October 1947 (Ref: B18598)

The Citizen Party, with its links to local business, has sometimes been dismissed as simply the Conservative Party by another name, but that was not always the case. One of the most important figures in early twentieth-century Bristol was Herbert John Maggs, a notable figure in the local Liberal Party, serving as a St George and Central ward councilor from 1906, alderman from 1927 and mayor in 1932. An early-1930s Ministry of Health report noted that he ‘has had an almost unbroken connection with the Health Committee since 1906 and he has been its Chairman for the last 10 years’. It was during this period, under Liberal/Citizen rather than Labour leadership, that the Health Committee led the way on a new interventionist approach and a commitment to new public health initiatives.

After the war, however, the Conservatives exerted greater control over the Citizen Party in the battle with Labour, who were no proving hard to dislodge. Through the creation of Avon County Council in the 1970s and then the City & County of Bristol in the 1990s, Labour was the dominant party in the city. The Conservatives briefly had more councillors in Bristol in the local elections that accompanied Thatcher’s 1983 re-election, but Labour was the largest party again a year later and had an outright majority another two years on.

When the new unitary authority was created in 1995, Labour had 53 of the 68 seats on the council. Though things have been rather different in the twenty-first century. The second-place Lib Dems, and to a lesser degree the third-place Conservatives, steadily won in more and more wards. Labour lost overall control in 2003 and the Lib Dems became the largest party in 2005. The Green Party won their first seat on the council the following year.

For nearly a century, Labour’s challenge in Bristol was to rally against opposition that might at times be progressive but was consistently ‘anti-socialist’. While the Liberal Democrats were winning majorities in council elections from 2009 and when an independent (and former Lib Dem), George Ferguson, won the first election for the newly-created post of directly-elected Mayor of Bristol in 2012, it looked like this might be a new version of that same old story. Perhaps these were, in large part, anti-Labour victories as much as anything else.

For the past two decades now, the Conservatives have remained fairly consistent with around 1 in 5 seats on the council, while the Greens steadily grew their number to sit close behind as a presence but hardly a major force. The fight between Labour and the Lib Dems to be the largest party during this time saw the balance move decisively in Labour’s direction from 2011, as elections for one-third of councillors most years ensured a steady drip of Lib Dem losses until they ended up with fewer than 10 seats out of 70. The corresponding story for Labour was one of steady gains until winning overall control and the mayoralty in 2016.

If developments up until 2016 could be explained as Labour winning the latest battle in a long-running war, where Lib Dems and independents had taking the place of the Tories and the Citizen Party before them, then these latest set of results don’t fit so easily. The second preference votes from the mayoral contest show few signs of Conservative or Lib Dem supporters backing the Greens as an anti-Labour vote. Which suggests that the rise of the Green Party in Bristol is not the latest manifestation of a century-long challenge but something rather different.

What exactly this means for Bristol’s changing political landscape, and how it can be navigated, will make the city’s local politics an interesting spectator sport for the foreseeable future.

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